Our America – Melissa Hunter

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My father is an immigrant. He came to America with his family shortly after World War Two. To me, America has always been a place of inclusion and opportunity, a place I’ve been proud to call home. I hope this legacy continues for future generations. I was compelled to write this story from my father’s point-of-view to show the hardship my family and other immigrants faced upon arrival…and ultimately, the success they found in this country we call home.

When my father’s brothers began the journey to America, my mother begged my father to join them. First, my father’s youngest brother Joseph was sent to New York to apprentice as a tailor. Then Pinkus, my father’s closest brother, was sent to Cincinnati, Ohio. “Let us go too, Hercko.” She pleaded. “Let us begin a new life as well. There is nothing left for us here but bad memories.”

My father agreed. We boarded a boat, the General M. B. Stewart, where we spent two weeks in steerage in the belly of the cargo ship. With not enough money for a cabin, we slept in bunks with the other poor passengers, alongside huge crates and luggage. The trip was turbulent. A storm followed us. I cried from the rocking of my world and suffered a terrible earache. At night, as my mother held me to her and sang lullabies to soothe me, I heard the scuffling sound of rats in search for crumbs. I was four-years-old.

The day of our arrival, we pressed onto the deck of the ship as the shoreline reached out to meet us. The cold of a November winter was brutal, but we didn’t care. I watched as the statue of a woman in billowing green, arm raised to the sky, grew ever larger in my vision. My mother held me in her arms as my father held tightly to her hand. He pushed his way to the front of the deck so we could see our new country grow larger before us. He lifted me onto his shoulders and pointed to the skyline, where buildings larger than I’d ever seen rose like towers to the clouds. “This is our new home, Levi.” He said. “This is America.” I could sense my parents’ excitement. I looked at my mother and said, “America, Mama.” She nodded and stroked my cheek.

The ship anchored at Ellis Island. There were too many things to see, and I quickly became overwhelmed. I buried my head against my father’s neck as fog horns blew and other ships pressed closely to ours. Sea gulls circled above against the gray clouds, their cries lost in the din. We shuffled into a crowded building where a man took the papers my father handed him. He stamped each one with hardly a glance at us. Then he spoke something in a strange language. My father didn’t understand. My mother stared blankly at him. Finally, he looked up and pointed at each of us in turn. To my father, he said, “Harry.” To my mother, he said, “Sally.” To me, he said, “Larry.” My father repeated the foreign words, confusion turning the string of syllables into a question. The man only turned and pointed to a wall lined with doors behind him. Still confused, we followed the throng of immigrants that filed past the doors into a series of rooms where we were carefully examined.

Someone tried to pull me away from my mother and I began to cry. “I’m here, Levi,” she said almost desperately, rushing to my side and holding my hands as a sharp comb was raked through my hair. We were poked and prodded; metal claws pulled back our eyelids, tongue depressors were stuck in our mouths, hands searched our bodies. Finally, we were released to join a crowd of people in a dining hall filled with long wooden tables. I held my father’s hand as he approached the counter and glanced at the sign hanging on the wall, listing the menu in a variety of foreign languages. He bought paper-wrapped sandwiches for all of us, hot chocolate for me, and coffee for him and my mother. As we ate, men in strange clothes approached us and spoke to my father. I watched as they struggled to understand each other. My father kept nodding and saying, “Yes, I am Hercko.”

The men led us outside and into a waiting car that pulled out into a sea of cars. I pressed my face to the glass. I had only been in a car a few times before. I was excited at the speed, at the sound of the horn, as the man drove us through the city. My mother kept reaching for me. “Be still, Levi,” she said as she held me tighter than she ever had before. I began to squirm. The man in the passenger seat turned and looked at us in back. He smiled gently but shook his head, nodded at me, and said in a firm tone, “Larry.”

We drove for a long time. The buildings of the city dwarfed us. There were people on both sides of the street. When the car stopped at intersections, they swarmed around us. They pressed close to the door. My mother looked afraid. I didn’t understand. This seemed like a grand adventure, and I was excited to be away from the water and the rocking of the ship and the endless gray sky. Here, there was color. Ladies in fancy coats and hats passed by. Men in suits carrying satchels and umbrellas looked smart as they hurried across intersections. Our long dark coats and hats and scarves and boots looked strange in comparison. I pointed at everything, saying, “Papa, Mama, look.”

Eventually, my excitement turned to exhaustion and I settled against my mother, blinking rapidly to keep from falling asleep. When the car came to a stop, I woke abruptly, eager to look out the window again. Instead of the majestic buildings from before, we were parked in front of a series of ugly-looking tenements with staircases that ran at uniform intervals along the outside walls. We followed the men up one of the staircases. Waiting outside one of the doors on a second-floor balcony was a woman who smiled and spoke to us in our own language.

“Welcome,” she said as she shook hands with my father. “My name is Anna,” she informed us. “I am with the Jewish Federation serving European Refugees and Displaced Persons.”

“Hercko Werthaiser.” My father introduced himself.

“No, no,” the woman said. “When you arrived, they should have given you new names.” She asked to see the passports and the papers my father had been given earlier. She pointed at the scrawl on the bottom of each page. “You see,” she explained, “you now have American variations of your Polish and German names. It’s easier on the tongue here. You are now Harry,” she said to my father. “Your wife is Sally, and your son,” she said as she ruffled my hair, “is Larry.”

“New names?” My father asked in confusion. My mother looked distressed and lifted me in her arms.

“Yes, Mr. Werthaiser.”

“And where are we?” He asked.

“New Jersey. Here is your new housing assignment.” She unlocked the door and stepped aside.

My father entered first, followed by my mother. I had to blink before my eyes focused on the small room. It was a one-bedroom apartment with a closet of a kitchen adjacent to the room in which we stood. My mother set me on my feet and walked forward with a small gasp. The apartment as a whole was not much larger than the living room of the home we had left. The furniture was sparse. Blinds were closed over the only window and dust lined everything.

“Hercko?” My mother whispered. Her eyes watered.

“We will leave you to get settled.” Anna said, seemingly oblivious to our bewilderment and alarm.

“My brothers,” my father said. “When will I see them?”

Anna consulted a clipboard that she pulled from a bag and her eyes scanned over the page. She frowned slightly, but then looked up and smiled over a flicker of doubt. “Tomorrow, we will send a car for you. Expect us early in the morning. You will come with us to finish your paperwork. At that time, we will answer any questions you might have. But for now, rest and unpack. You have had a long journey to your new home. There is food in the refrigerator for your supper. So please, have a good evening, and welcome to America.”

When the door closed behind her, my mother rushed across the room and quickly drew the chains across the locks. She turned and looked at my father imploringly. “Hercko, we cannot stay here!” She cried.

He held up his hand. He appeared to be thinking. He walked to the window and pulled the blinds. Directly across from us was a smokestack belonging to a large industrial factory. Black smoke poured from the smokestack into the darkening sky. My mother put her hand to her mouth.

“Papa, look,” I said, pointing across the room at something that moved quickly underneath a chair in the corner of the room. My mother screamed. I ran to her, hugging her leg. She lifted me quickly. My father pushed us into the little bedroom and chased the black rat out our apartment door onto the balcony outside. My mother was openly sobbing now. My father slammed the door and said firmly, “Sarah, there is food for dinner. We will eat, and then tomorrow, we will leave here to be with my brothers or demand to be sent back to Germany.”

* * *

The women at the New York branch of the Jewish Federation were appalled at the idea that we would want to go back to the country and the memories from which we had fled. My father spoke in angry Yiddish to Anna, the only one of them who spoke our language. “I was making a living there. We had a decent home. We have family there still, you understand?

“But now, my brothers have come to this country. We were all together in Germany after the war, but here you separate us! You put my family in a place that can only be compared to a prison! There was a rat the size of a dog that frightened my son. I demand that you send us to my brothers, or book us passage on the next ship leaving this place.”

“You don’t understand!” Anna said urgently. “We must place immigrants in designated cities only. There are quotas to be met. There are limited places to house you and only so many jobs we can offer. This country is only so large!”

“Surely we can stay with my brother in New York. Or my other brother, in Cincinnati,” my father insisted.  

She laughed almost desperately. “New York is not an option,” she said. “There is simply no housing available. And Cincinnati, well, it is too great a distance . . .”

“I thought you said this country is only so large.” My father pointed out.

“It’s not customary to just relocate you to another city!” Anna said vehemently. “You are assigned to take up work in New Jersey . . .”

“To hell with this New Jersey . . .” My father interrupted. “We will go back to Germany then.”

Anna turned from us and pressed her palms on the desk before her. She looked at the confused faces of her co-workers, in a rush explaining to them everything my father had said. They seemed as shocked as she was. One woman flipped through a series of papers, all the while shaking her head. She held up a sheet and muttered something in a doubtful tone. Anna took the paper, turned back to my father, and said, “Very well, Mr. Werthaiser. We will see if we can book passage for you on a train to Cincinnati, Ohio.”

* * *

I doubt my parents knew how long it would take us to reach Ohio from New York. They didn’t know the distance that separated the two states, or for that matter, the breadth of the country as a whole. We sat in our seats on the train watching the miles pass outside our window. My father kept shaking his head, murmuring that it was a sin for Joseph and Pinkus to live so far apart. “What are they trying to do?” He asked. “Keep family members from each other after all we’ve done to stay together?”

When the city skyline grew distant and the fields rose up around us, my mother finally relaxed. This was a landscape with which she was more familiar. I, however, watched the line of buildings grow smaller and smaller in amazement. I had never seen a city so large or filled with so many people. Now, seeing New York from a distance, grand and imposing, was like seeing a slumbering giant on the cusp of waking. The buildings moved away slowly, ever expanding outward. I watched the way the field grasses rushed past the window, the way the trees beyond moved at a more gradual pace, and shadowing it all was a metropolis so vast that it took the darkened shape of a mountain rising above the entire countryside. Even at the age of four, I knew I would like this country.

My mother fell asleep while holding me. Her whole soft body fell around me in folds. My father glanced at us. Whenever he looked at my mother, his expression would become serious, as though concentrating deeply. When he’d look at me, his face would sometimes crumble in grief. This was rare. He usually smiled or winked or pulled me on his lap and tweaked my nose. But when I saw the sadness in his eyes, I worried. Now, he was staring at us so intensely that I asked him if something was wrong. “Are you going to cry, Papa?” I asked.

“No, Levi.” He said softly. “I’m happy right now, son.”

I thought nothing of seeing my parents cry. It was a common occurrence, especially for my mother. She had wandered the rooms of our home like a lost child. Even in her own kitchen, she would forget herself, would stop and stare at nothing, as still and unmoving as the furniture. When I pulled on her skirt to get her attention, her hands came up to her cheeks to wipe at the tears that fell silently from her eyes. I wouldn’t discover until I was older that crying was something most adults tried to keep private from their children.

The New York Jewish Federation had contacted the Cincinnati Branch, which in turn had notified my uncle and his family. When the train finally pulled into the station, we were met by the familiar faces of our relatives. My parents waved excitedly through the windows as we passed down the aisle of the train to the door. “Pinkus!” My father exclaimed from the top step, lifting his hat and waving it above his head. He stepped down and turned, taking me from my mother’s arms and helping her down. Instantly, we were surrounded. My father and uncle hugged. My mother and her sister-in-law held each other fiercely, kissing each other on the cheeks. I stared at the young boy who held my aunt’s hand and gazed back at me. He was my cousin Marty. I had seen him a few times before they left Germany, but hardly remembered him. He looked very much like me, with his hair falling in curls around his ears like mine. When they had left the year before us, my cousin Regina had been a baby. Now, she peeked out at us from behind my aunt. My mother smiled at her and turned to my aunt. “Such a Shayna Maidala.” She said.

“We are family again,” my aunt said, and together, they enfolded us in a warm hug.

* * *

Because we had not originally been sent to Cincinnati, there was no housing available for us. We moved in with my uncle and his family. Their apartment, the second floor of a two-family home, was small and cramped with the addition of my family, but it was brighter than the apartment we had been given in New Jersey, and it was located in a quiet neighborhood north of the city. My father and mother slept in the living room on a sofa that folded out into a bed. I slept with my cousin. We alternated between sleeping on his twin-sized bed and a feather mattress on the floor. The first night there, my mother insisted that I be given the bed. Marty complained irritably. “But this is my bed. Why should he sleep there?”

Although we were uncertain of each other at first, our shared language and family customs soon strengthened our bond. I grew to see Marty not as a cousin but as a brother. Our mothers would take us for walks in the park, pushing my cousin Regina in a stroller, and tell us how we were born less than a day apart . . . Marty on the night of August 25th and I on the morning of August 26th. When summer came, we celebrated our fifth birthday together with cake and ice cream melting on our fingers.

We played with the other children on our street, Greenas like ourselves who spoke Yiddish with different Eastern European accents. As most children do, I soon forgot my home in Germany. My memories were transient, each day’s events quickly rewriting those of the day before. I loved the activity in our home. I had two sets of parents who constantly spoiled my cousins and myself. Sometimes it seemed like a competition between my mother and aunt to see who could shower us with the most love and praise. There was a desperation in their need to keep us happy. We went often to the parks and playgrounds of our neighborhood. We ran beneath hoses and ate watermelon during the heat of summer. We played games of Jacks and tag in the evenings while our fathers sat on the outside steps smoking cigarettes and our mothers cooked in the humid kitchen. My father took me into the city to watch the barges on the Ohio River and the trains that pulled in and out of the station where we had first arrived. These were my favorite afternoons.

* * *

I was six when I started school for the first time. It was September of 1952. I attended a Hebrew Day School, and I had a teacher who did not speak a word of Hebrew, Yiddish, or German. Up until that time, the language in our home was primarily Yiddish. I watched the teacher anxiously as she held up pictures and spoke to us using short, quick words I could not understand.

When I realized that what she was saying referred to the images she was showing us, I felt a rush of understanding. I excitedly repeated with the class every word she said, carefully enunciating every vowel and consonant. I vaguely remembered a finger pointing at me and saying, “Larry.” Like one of my teacher’s pictures, I came to understand myself in American terms. I wanted baseball caps like the other boys I knew. I wanted to chant the same songs they sang when they threw basketballs to one another. I wanted to wear jeans that got scraped in the knees rather than rough pants all the time. I wanted to play on baseball diamonds and ride bikes with red, white, and blue streamers flapping form the handlebars. In class, I went by Larry. With my growing circle of friends, I went by Larry. The only ones who called me Levi anymore were my family.

I was determined to infuse our household with English. I followed my mother around as she cleaned, holding up different articles and calling them by their English names. “Look, Mama, this is a fork. FORK. F-o-r-k. This is a lamp. L-a-m-p. This is a newspaper. This is a pillow.”

We recited the English alphabet each day and practiced handwriting, along with addition and subtraction. Soon, my class was tested on the various words we had learned. On our test paper were boxes with pictures in each one and lines drawn underneath. On the lines, I spelled each item correctly and received a large A on the top of my paper in red ink. I ran home from school and showed my parents, breathless from excitement. “What does this mean?” My father asked, pointing to the A, his brow furrowed.

“It’s the first letter in the alphabet, Papa.” I told him. “That means I did well. I didn’t get any answers wrong.”

“That’s wonderful, Levi!” My mother exclaimed, hugging me close. “You are such a smart, bright child!”

“Do you know the alphabet, Levi?” My father asked.

“Yes, Papa.”

“Will you say it for us?” He asked.

I nodded and started from the beginning, my voice rising and falling as I sang the little tune my teacher had taught us. As I sang, my parents exchanged a private look. I saw the flicker again . . . the shadow of grief that came even in the happiest times.

* * *

My father was given a job at an office in downtown Cincinnati. One morning over the summer break, he took me with him. We woke early, before the sun was even up, boarding a smoky bus filled with men in suits reading newspapers or dozing in their seats. We arrived at the downtown station before 8:00 a.m. My father took my hand and we walked the three or four blocks to a tall office building where a guard greeted us at the outside gate.

“Morning, Harry,” the guard said as he unlocked the gate.

My father nodded as we walked past him to a guardhouse where another guard handed him what appeared to be a folded blanket of red, white, and blue. “What is that, Papa?” I asked.

“This, my son, is the American flag,” he said, holding the flag proudly in his hands. We walked to the flagpole where he lowered hooks that attached to rings along the flag’s border. Carefully unfolding the material, he fastened the hooks to the rings and raised the American flag to its full height. The wind caressed the flag, bringing it to life so that it undulated slowly against an ever brightening sky. My father took his duty very seriously, and I stood by and watched silently.

For the rest of the day, we sat in the little guardhouse playing cards, looking at comics, and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from brown paper bags. We stayed until the last worker had left at six o’clock. At that time, my father lowered the flag, unhooked it, folded it, and stored it in the guardhouse for the next day.

Before going home, my father took me to Mt. Adams, a large hill to the east of downtown Cincinnati. We sat on a stone wall that overlooked the row houses climbing the hill, the river curving below us, while I ate Cracker Jacks and my father smoked quietly. He had fallen into a melancholy silence. “Papa, what are you thinking about?” I asked.

He exhaled a cloud of smoke and looked down at me. It seemed to take a second for him to focus. “Hirsch?” He said softly.

“That’s not my name, Papa. That’s my middle name. You know that.” I said. He often called me by my middle name.

He put an arm around me and said, “You’re right, son. I’m sorry.” After a moment, he added, “I’ve told you this before, when you were just a baby, so you probably don’t remember. But before you were born, before I even knew your mother, I had another wife and child. My son’s name was Hirsh.”

I was confused. I pulled away to look up at him. “What do you mean, Papa? How do you have another son? I have a brother?”

Had a brother, a brother you never even knew. It was a long time ago, in Germany.” He grew quiet once again, putting his cigarette to his lips.

“Does Mama know?” I asked.

My father nodded. “Yes, son. Your mother knows.”

I wanted to ask a million more question, but he suddenly pulled me next to him and gestured to the city that spread out below us like a beautiful concrete quilt. From where we sat, we could see the barges on the river, the bridges that linked Ohio and Kentucky, and the skyscrapers that rose in the distance. “That was a long time ago . . . such a long time ago. Now we are here, in our America.

“You will have the best life here, my son,” my father said. “That is my promise to you.”

His words were tinged with a determination I didn’t understand, but I put my head against his shoulder and looked down at the river. Our America, I thought. And then I yawned. “Can we go home now, Papa?” I asked.

“Yes, Levi,” my father said. “Let’s go home.”

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4 thoughts on “Our America – Melissa Hunter

  1. Cheryl Fetterly

    Oh, what a vibrant, heart-tugging story. Thank you for bringing it to life for us. Your father must be so touched!

    Reply
  2. Joel

    Thank you so much Melissa. This story is a priceless gift. May the blessing of a father to his sons pass down through the generations.

    Reply

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